Charles Landseer was the elder brother of the much better known and more successful Edwin (see lot 6). Like his sibling, he studied under his father, the engraver John Landseer, and then with Benjamin Robert Haydon, the apostle of 'high art', before entering the Royal Academy Schools in 1816. There he was taught by one of the most brilliant preceptors in the entire history of the Schools, John Henry Fuseli (see lot 216). In the early 1820s he travelled in Portugal and Brazil with Lord Stuart de Rothesay, who was engaged on a mission to negotiate a commercial treaty with the Don Pedro I; the drawings he made on these journeys were exhibited at the British Institution in 1828 and sold at Christie's on 9 April 1999, lot 1 (£710,000). In 1828 he also made his debut at the Royal Academy, where he was to show a total of seventy- three pictures during the next half-century. Specialising in historical subjects and genre, he was elected R.A. in 1845, and in 1851 he succeeeded to Fuseli's old post of Keeper, holding it until 1873. Despite his three year seniority, he outlived Edwin, dying in 1879 at the age of eighty. He bequeathed £10,000 to the Academy to found Landseer scholarships, together with George Stubbs's drawings for The Anatomy of the Horse, which he had inherited from his brother.
The subject of this picture is taken from the Old Testament: 'So Noah knew that the waters were abated from the earth' (Genesis 8: 11). God was so displeased by man's wickedness that he sent a flood to destroy all living creatures. It rained for forty days and forty nights, and the water covered the earth for one hundred and fifty days until finally the Ark, into which Noah had shepherded his family and the animals, two by two, came to rest on Mount Ararat. To discover whether the earth was habitable Noah despatched a raven, which did not return. He then twice sent a dove, which returned the second time with an olive branch. The third time the dove was sent it did not return. Noah then led his family and the animals out of the ark, so that they might be 'fruitful and multiply upon the earth'.
Regretably, the composition was mercilessly ridiculed by the critics when it was shown. The most skittish and comprehensive was Thackeray, who wrote in biblical mode for May Gambols' in Fraser's Magazine. 'Brother Charles has sinned. The sinner has said to himself, 'The British public likes domestic pieces. They will have nothing but domestic pieces. I will give them one, and of a new sort. Suppose I paint a picture that must make a hit. My picture will have every sort of interest. It shall interest the religious public: it shall interest the domestic public; it shall interest the amateur for the cleverness of its painting; it shall interest little boys and girls, for I will introduce no end of animals: camels, monkeys, elephants, and cockatoos; it shall interest young ladies, for I will take care to have a pretty little episode for them. I will take the town by storm, in a word.' This is what I conceive was passing through brother Charles's sinful soul when he conceived and executed 'Noah's Art in a domestic point of view'. Before lambasting the ark for having the dimensions of a Calais paddle steamer, Thackeray concluded 'No great painter has the right to treat great historical subjects in such a fashion'.
It is interesting to note that when Millais exhibited his version of The Return of the Dove to the Ark in 1851 (fig. 1), he distilled the scene to its essence. His simple and poignant picture contrasts dramatically with Landseer's vast menagerie, and yet the central motif of the girl holding the dove to her breast is essentially the same. It seems likely that Landseer's painting provided visual inspiration for Millais, who was then a student at the Royal Academy Schools.
Not all critics were as cruel as Thackeray. The Illustrated London News concluded that the picture had 'the merit of correct detail, and nothing derogatory to the high rank which the name of Landseer has obtained'.